Mixed Signals & Psychology of Markets


Written by: Jon McGraw

The Markets

Much like elementary school children trying to capture the attention of someone they have a crush on, the American economy sent lots of mixed signals last week.

Conflicting reports emerged about consumer sentiment during the week. The Conference Board, a non-profit research organization, reported consumers remained somewhat pessimistic about the direction of the economy. In contrast, the University of Michigan’s consumer sentiment survey rose to a six-year high, according to ABC News. The Index moved from 76.4 in April to 83.7 in May indicating consumers are feeling more confident about the economy.

On the employment front, more people filed first-time unemployment claims last week than had filed the week before; however, claims remained well below the levels experienced from mid-2008 to 2011. Additionally, data shows during the past six months the average length of unemployment has dropped, the number of hours worked has risen, and earnings have increased.

Messages from the Federal Reserve were more consistent than economic data. Members of the Philadelphia, Dallas, and San Francisco Federal Reserve Banks suggested it may be time to begin slowing quantitative easing. Currently, the Federal Reserve’s quantitative easing efforts have it buying about $85 billion of Treasuries and mortgage-backed securities each month as it works to support the economy. According to reports, quantitative easing could slow to a stop during 2013. Fed comments helped push yields on 10-year Treasuries higher for the week.

Stock markets remained undaunted by uncertain economic conditions and the prospect that quantitative easing may end soon. The Dow Jones Industrial Average and the Standard & Poor’s 500 Indices surged to new highs last week. Markets rallied across the pond, as well, with some major European stock indices reaching levels last seen five or more years ago, according to Reuters.


Data as of 5/17/13







Standard & Poor’s 500 (Domestic Stocks)







10-year Treasury Note (Yield Only)







Gold (per ounce)







DJ-UBS Commodity Index







DJ Equity All REIT TR Index








Heuristic is just another name for a shortcut

When academics look to psychology and economics to explain why people make financial decisions the way they do, it’s called behavioral finance. This field of study describes a phenomenon called “heuristics.” In general, a heuristic is a mental shortcut that lets someone solve a problem using a rule of thumb. Heuristics may be handy, but they may not take you exactly where you mean to go. For example, consider some of the shortcuts investors have developed to predict the direction of the stock market. You may have heard of the:

  • Hemline Index: In 1926, George Taylor suggested the length of women’s skirts was a useful market predictor. Short hemlines were a positive predictor while long hemlines were a negative predictor. Taylor later became Professor of Industrial Relations at Wharton and became known as the father of American Arbitration.
  • Super Bowl Indicator: Washington and Lee professor George Kester introduced the idea the Super Bowl winner could predict market performance. His theory was the market would move higher for the year when an original National Football League team won the Super Bowl and lower when an original American Football League team won.
  • Presidential Election Cycle Theory: The idea behind this gem is the stock market follows a predictable pattern during each American President’s term. The year after an election produces the      weakest stock market performance while the third year offers the strongest.

Anyone who remembers The Chicago Daily Tribune’s headline, Dewey Beats Truman, or CNN and Fox News’ headlines indicating the Supreme Court struck down the individual mandate, knows predicting the future can be challenging. In general, it’s a good idea to remember that the drivers of market performance tend to be economic factors, investor sentiment, and company fundamentals.

Weekly Fun – Think About It

“The pursuit of truth and beauty is a sphere of activity in which we are permitted to remain children all our lives.”  —Albert Einstein, theoretical physicist

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